Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations
Robert K. Knake, Whitney Shepardson senior fellow at CFR, discusses strategies to prevent cyber threats to democracy.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon and welcome to the first call of the CFR Fall 2020 Academic Webinar series. I'm Irina Faskianos, Vice President for the National Program and Outreach at CFR. Thanks for being with us today. Our webinar is on the record and the video file and transcript will be available on our website cfr.org/academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We're delighted to have Robert Knake with us. He is CFR's Whitney Shepardson senior fellow. Mr. Knake served as director for cyber security policy at the National Security Council from 2011 to 2015, where he was responsible for the development of presidential policy on cybersecurity and built and managed federal processes for cyber incident response and vulnerability management. Prior to his government experience, he was an international affairs fellow at CFR, in which he completed the manuscript for Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, and authored the Council Special Report, Internet Governance in an Age of Cyber Insecurity. His latest book, The Fifth Domain: How to Protect Our Country, Our Companies, and Ourselves in the Age of Cyber Threats, was published by Penguin Press last summer. So, I recommend that to all of you.
So Rob, thanks very much for being with us. Can you begin by talking about cybersecurity strategies for safeguarding the U.S. general election from foreign interference and your assessment of any other emerging cyber threats that we will see coming down the pipe?
KNAKE: Sure, Irina, happy to do that. So let me start by beginning broadly with the premise that my major concern here is—as the title of this webinar suggests—is with preventing cyber threats to democracy, not necessarily just to U.S. elections. And I think that's an important distinction. I think a lot of the focus has been on how do we protect this election and what went wrong in 2016. What can we do to protect future U.S. elections? But I think there's threats to democracy that are being carried through the internet, to all of our homes to our phones, that we need to address, not just when elections are happening, there is a concerted effort, by Russia and possibly other countries, to really destabilize the nation, to undermine our faith in democracy to undermine our faith in democratic institutions. And so that's the first reason I think we need to focus more broadly than just on the U.S. election.
The other piece of it is that I think in order to protect the U.S. elections and the U.S. election process, we need as a country to be more concerned with threats to democracy abroad. We need to build a coalition of countries that find this kind of election interference that Russia has carried out that China or Iran may carry out unacceptable and to join with us in punishing countries that engage in it. For that reason, I've really been focused on the need for the U.S. to not only deter Russia from engaging in election interference, but also to commit to not engaging in election interference itself. This has been one in my mind, one of the more surprising responses from the national security community, as we say, out of one side of our mouth, that Russia should not interfere with our elections, that we hold our elections sacred that the values of democracy are values that we hold dear and will protect at all costs. We've been unwilling as a community and certainly as a government to commit to not doing the same. It's often pointed out on the far left in the United States, but in the center right in Western Europe and Eastern Europe, that the U.S. has carried out election interference abroad for most of the last century. Well documented cases, up to and through the Cold War that had become known for a variety of reasons, and a bit of an opaque record when it comes to election interference carried out by the U.S. government since the turn of the century, but some emerging evidence that the U.S. has continued to engage in that activity. And so I think if we're going to try and protect democracy in the United States, we need to think about how we protect democracy more broadly. We need to think about what are we willing to give up. Some very notable national security officials on the democratic side have been point blank that they do not think that the U.S. should forgo the tool of foreign election interference. I find it very hard to think we're going to convince Germany or Brazil or other democracies to engage with us in punishing Russia for interfering in elections, when we're not willing to do that.
Let me end here with a last note on why I think it's so important both that we build this norm as part of creating a deterrence posture on this. We're really not as a state of a field in cybersecurity in a position where we can say the defense can win on the offense, that if Russia chooses to interfere in our election, that we would be able to detect and we would be able to stop that. Much progress has been made on that front. I will note that the Department of Homeland Security, who's gotten beaten up for a lot, a lot of things has done a tremendous job of engaging with states and investing in technical election security. Many states have tremendously improved their records. But that said, the ability to protect these systems is at best unknown. And so for that reason, we've got to be able to reject a deterrence posture. We're obviously not going to get a strong statement at this point from President Trump against this kind of interference. We've in fact seen some evidence of welcoming this kind of interference. But I think that there's the ability for Vice President Biden and for other national security officials and for members of Congress to make stronger determinist statements about what could be the potential punishment and pain that Russia might receive if they engage in election interference, and do not get the outcome that they seem, according to the U.S. intelligence community, very focused on achieving. So let me stop there, Irina.
FASKIANOS: Great, thank you, Rob. Appreciate it. So to all of you, let's go right to your questions and comments. If you want to click, at the bottom of your screen, the participants icon, raise your hand, and then when I call your name, please accept the unmute button. If you're on a tablet, you should click on the "more" button on the upper right-hand corner and you will find the raise hand in that area. I'm going to pull up—we have the first question from Morton Holbrook. Also, give us your affiliation, even though I know what it is but for everybody else's edification.
Q: Hi, good afternoon. I'm at Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro, Kentucky. My question that sort of takes up on your statement that if it's kind of impossible for us to forgo these dirty tricks, you might say, overseas, it's hard for us to tell others not to do so. So where do we end up? Do we end up saying, we should try to stop blatant acts by others and perhaps we won't engage in blatant acts? Or is there any kind of balance? Or is it just kind of hopeless given that the internet is a two-edged sword?
KNAKE: Yeah, I think to your point, the hopelessness gets me very, very concerned about the future. Right now, we're talking about Russia, possibly China, possibly Iran, engaging in election interference at a presidential level. The cost and the capabilities for interference are just so low that I think we could see future scenarios in which you know, Paraguay might decide to interfere in a city council election in a town that has a lot of (inaudible) in it right. And so for this reason, we really got to think, unlike in other domains where we tend to say we've got an advantage, we've got a superiority, we've got a capability that other countries have, and we can prevent the proliferation of those capabilities. This is an area in which proliferation is rapid. The costs to get into the business are so low, the capabilities are so widespread, that we really just need to rethink whether or not we need this tool. And my answer is we don't.
I also think when you look at the history of election interference, we're not very good at it. We don't tend to get the outcomes that we want from interfering in elections. When you look at data, Doug Levin, who's a professor of political science at the University of Hong Kong, has such a massive data set on this. And what he found were a couple surprising things. One, we tended to do better when we were interfering in elections overtly, whether we were saying the U.S. government backs this candidate and not that one, we tended to get a better outcome than when we tried to hide our hand, tried to funnel money to the opposition group, put the CIA in. That actually didn't typically work that well, in part because it's hard to carry out those kinds of campaigns, or at least was in the twentieth century. And in part because I think we may in some ways, not recognize the power and influence the soft power that the U.S. government still has in functioning democracies around the world.
The two notable cases from the Obama administration that I think are worth raising was one, when President Obama made some very delicate, very gentle comments, suggesting that Scotland should not, in fact, pass the referendum to break away from Great Britain. And that was, I think, part along with the Queen's intervention of preventing that referendum from being successful. A much stronger statement came out of Vice President Biden with regard to elections in Lebanon, where if one party took over, he said that the U.S. government would be withdrawing its military support for the Lebanese government, for the Lebanese military. That had the desired effect. And so it may be that we can through promotion of democracy, through support for democratic liberal governments, help to support those governments and to undermine authoritarian threats to those governments. And so I think for that reason, we can probably look and say, we're probably better off without this tool, without anybody having this tool, than just accepting that everyone is going to have it and every election is going to be a free for all with foreign interference.
FASKIANOS: Let's go to Brandon Valeriano.
Q: Okay, I agree with you that the goal should be to foster global norms in defense of democracy. But how do we do that if the government is fundamentally uninterested in the process. We don't participate a standard bodies the way we need to. We don't collaborate on data sharing, and the current disinformation tactics at the current USG really critical horrible precedents. So how do we rectify this desire for norms with the inability of the government to do so?
KNAKE: I think you've got to begin at the top, right. If you don't have a president that believes in democracy as foundational, that wants to see democracy supported around the world, and I realize I'm speaking rather candidly now, that's your first problem, right? If you actually have a tendency towards authoritarian governments that tend to work on a model of one man, one vote, one time, it's going to be very, very difficult to promote a global norm of not interfering in elections. That said, if you can create that acceptance of the norm and acceptance of the policy at the top of the government, then we actually I think, have the tools to fund and support stabilization of democratic norms in countries that are most threatened. Some people have argued that the sort of post–Cold War efforts at the National Endowment for Democracy and other efforts like that are really just election interference in another name. For my two cents, I think that those are efforts that need to be bolstered, that need to be strengthened, that more money needs to be invested in, that if we could reject our interfering past ways and have a moment of truth and reconciliation on that point, we'd be much better positioned to build a democratic alliance and bring countries together to help combat this trend towards election interference and towards authoritarianism.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let's go next to Manuel Montoya.
Q: Yeah, thank you very much Irina, and thank you very much Mr. Knake for your time. I'm an associate professor at the University of New Mexico and we've been having a discussion here about the limits of the role that the private sector plays in contributing to a democratic, technical, democratic society. What are your thoughts on the limits of the private sector contributing to this particularly?
KNAKE: This has been an interesting question, and I don't think we're going to have a good sense of the ultimate impact until after the election. What I think we've seen this time around is a lot of individuals and companies have sort of raised up their hands and said, okay, you know, we will give our time we will give our technology to help protect campaigns, to help protect state and local government from cyberattacks up through and including on election day. And we'll do that out of a sort of civic interest. My understanding is that there has been some uptake in those services, but not as much as we would hope. That ultimately, for companies to really give their resources and their people really requires a funding model that we don't have today, in order to bring in those resources.
So I think the example that I would use is Google has gone kind of out of their way to promote their advanced protection program, which they use internally to protect against spear phishing emails, the kind of thing that affected John Podesta in the 2016 campaign and led to the doxing of the DNC and the Clinton campaign. They've really sort of raised their hand and said, okay, this program is free, it's free to everybody, everybody should be using it. And yet, the adoption by campaigns, from my understanding talking to people at Google, has been relatively low. And the reason for that, I think, isn't anything to do with the price. It's free. It has to do with a lack of funding for campaigns, lack of funding for state and local government agencies to be able to implement it and use those technologies, to be able to have a seventy-five dollar, two-factor authentication yubikey. My understanding is Google has gone as far as to say, hey, we have many of these for free, and you can have them. And yet adoption has still been low. I think overall, there's some gap in the model of the public private partnership that we need to find, find a way to fill.
It's a tremendous challenge for the campaigns on one hand, which are essentially Fortune 500 companies that are getting stood up and stood down in eighteen months to focus on security. I think we've seen some investment this time around on improving security, but probably not what we should have. We did see the Buttigieg campaign hire the first CSO of any campaign, that was a good move. We now have the Biden campaign has appointed a CSO, Chris DeRusha, who's a former colleague of mine and comes from a great experience out of the state of Michigan, but he only came on about a month ago. And so I think we need earlier investment by the campaigns.
Finally, I would say the big challenge here is really the state of the states. State IT is in just such a bad shape, that there really is no funding or ability for volunteer help to be absorbed by the states in order to secure election infrastructure. We really need to think about how we're going to carry out the equivalent of cash for clunkers for state and local IT as part of the next stimulus because they're just not in a position to secure their systems. They're working from a legacy base that is just not securable.
FASKIANOS: Not to mention all the added demands now with COVID-19 and budget pressures that the pandemic is bringing to bear on states. Let's go next to Jonathan Azuri.
Q: Hey, I'm an MBA student at UC Marshall and I also work for a tech company. I'm a product manager. I'm well versed in all the tech words, really interesting discussion. And I'm wondering if, with all the technology and all the advancement and the power, and the resources that countries have, do you feel like there's a world in which we have a clean quote unquote, elections? And if so, how will deterrence get us there? And if not, what other creative solutions might be put in place in order to get to this quote unquote, clean elections?
KNAKE: Yeah, I think it's a good question. And I think my view is that probably our best hope on the election front from a technical-security perspective is to get to a place where we can wind back the tape. And this is why some of the brightest minds in cybersecurity have been promoting the need for paper backups as the solution, right. It's not, we need to build an online secure voting system, distributing piff cards to every voter in the United States. They've been saying we need to be able to roll back the tape and forensically know whether or not the voter tallies are real. And so that I think is one of the most important things.
But second to that, I really think is this idea of how do you deter interference and how do you punish interference, right? In the case of Russia, in the case of China, in the case of Iran, we can't really think of this like mutually assured destruction. If you don't have a legitimate democratic process for us to interfere in, threatening to do the same is difficult. And so coming up with how do you create that kind of equivalency, and then how do you communicate that equivalency, has been the hard part. And we have a lot of lessons from the cold war on the importance of communicating responses. We have a hard time encapsulating what our response would be, or even should be, somewhere between doing nothing and nuclear Armageddon, right. We don't really know where to put the U.S. response for election interference. Is it something that is actually inviting a kinetic response? Nobody's been willing to say that at this point. Should it be? I don't know. I can't answer that. And so that I think is one of the hardest pieces with deterrence.
Finally, I think since you mentioned that you were for big tech company right, I think that we've talked a little bit about tech companies providing security and having a piece in that. But one of the biggest things we've got to figure out is how do the Facebooks, and the Googles, and other companies protect the messaging on their platforms. This is where I've taken a little bit of heat from the privacy community because my view on this is the first thing that we need, on Facebook, on Twitter, and on other emerging platforms is stronger authentication. We need to know whether somebody is who they say they are, or whether they are a Russian bot. The only way we're going to be able to do that isn't through the algorithmic approach that Facebook and Google and others have been taking. I think that's been shown to have failed. The volume of fake accounts that are created—let's just focus on Facebook for a second—it's just staggering. It's eleven or twelve billion fake accounts per year. So even if they're detecting at five nines, fake accounts, there are plenty that are getting through. If you need to sway ten thousand, forty thousand votes in Michigan to sway an election. I think we've got to introduce a way to have validated and trusted identities.
I think there are also ways that you could do that pseudo-anonymously. I recognize that that may be difficult, but if an account operating under a pseudonym on Twitter, is saying, you know, I am a demographic just like you and a swing county in a swing state, and here's my political view, and here's why I think the thing to do is to sit out the election this time because it's never going to be fair. That account, even if it's going to be pseudo-anonymous, those claims need to be checked and verified. I don't think we're going to get to a point where the AI is really smart enough to do that anytime soon.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Nancy Gallagher.
Q: Nancy Gallagher from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. You've said that you think the United States should basically renounce election interference itself. And that this is part of the problem that it hasn't been willing to clearly do that. At the same time, you've argued that we should be doing more on the democracy promotion front. So I'm really interested to know how you define the difference between the types of interference that you think we should ban or renounce and the types that we should do more of and whether the Russians would draw the dividing line in the same way that you would?
KNAKE: It's a great question. So I think the first division I'll make is between three things: covert election interference, overt election interference, and support for democracy. Covert election interference is I think what most people are thinking about, right? It's the hidden hand, it's we're going to create fake accounts on Facebook, we're going to use those accounts to try and manipulate voter sentiment. We are going to hack into the voter registration database for a state and we're going to delete records so that on election day, there's going to be confusion at the polls. We're going to shut down traffic signals in an inner city to keep people from getting to the polls on election day. That I would consider covert election interference and I think that that should be outright banned. The U.S. government should not engage in that activities, anywhere globally, no matter how important we think the election is. We simply should not do it because it is against our democratic values.
The middle category, I think is more open for debate. Is it okay to engage in overt election interference? And where do you draw the line? What does that mean? Is signing a trade agreement ahead of a deadline for an election with a party in power that you're allied with in foreign countries, is that election interference? I would say no, other people would say, yes, you're trying to do something with the purpose of affecting an election. Statements on what candidate an American politician supports. I would say that’s overt election interference, you’re trying to affect an outcome. I would say that that's okay to do, other people would say, you should not do that. I think one of the best dividing lines may be: are you breaking laws of the country in which you're engaged in? If countries don't have rules against foreign financing of elections, then maybe it's okay if the U.S. government puts money into one campaign coffers. If they do, that's probably covert that probably shouldn't be allowed.
The final category I think, is the most obvious of something that I'm okay with, right? We're going to fund strengthening of election processes and procedures, we're going to fund efforts to observe elections and make sure that they're free and fair. I think those things are all good things that we should do and that we should promote. Where does Russia see the line? Well, they would say all that's off the table, that's all interference. Even if elections are not really that important in a Russian context, my understanding is that the way that Russia views it is the U.S. has intervened within Russian affairs in any number of ways and have intervened in their periphery, in any number of ways in Ukraine and Georgia and elsewhere. And so therefore, they argue that what is being done now is really no different. They may be interfering in our election, we were interfering in their sovereignty more broadly. I don't care that much about that argument. I think we need to draw some limits around what's on the table. I'm not at the point of arguing for a wider policy of nonintervention or noninterference, though I think that Russia would be happy to make that argument, convince us not to do it while they continue to interfere in our affairs.
FASKIANOS: Great, let's go to Bradley Jacob.
Q: Hi, thank you very much. I'm a student at the USC Price School of Public Policy. Appreciate your time today. I want to dig a little bit deeper into your comments on Facebook and social media, as I feel with the ease of access that those platforms provide foreign and domestic actors to make their propaganda feel organic and home grown and, you know, first amendment issues with free speech on social media. Do you feel that there are any policy solutions that are potentially viable in relation to election integrity and security on social media? Or is it really a matter of self-governance and making AI more efficient and optimal?
KNAKE: So where I've been at this, you can do this if you want. It's kind of a fun process. If you want to dig into how identity proofing could work on Facebook. Facebook has introduced a process for anybody who wants to do political advertising, where you need to validate that you're a U.S. citizen or a U.S. organization. You can go online from your Facebook profile, dig through the settings, and begin a process for validating your identity that involves, if I'm remembering this one correctly, you have to hold up your driver's license and other forms of identification to a video, they capture that, they capture the ID, they're going to run a background check on you. If that all checks out, their last step is they're going to use the U.S. mail, to mail you a document with a code on it, and you got to take that code, go back into Facebook and punch it in right and it's just one more step to try and validate that somebody who is setting themselves up to engage in political advertising actually should be able to do that.
Is it a foolproof process? No. Could you pay mules and manipulate the system to be able to do it? Sure, but you're not going to be able to for a few hundred thousand dollars, sit at the internet research agency in Russia and conduct election interference using political advertising on Facebook this time around. I think that's the kind of system that we would benefit from, more broadly being deployed on Facebook and on other social media platforms. I would call it the democratization of the Twitter blue check. You can begin with the process where you simply say, anybody can do this, and we encourage you to do so and if you do so, you get a validated identity that is matching your name and your picture to your face per Facebook's real identity policy. Good for you.
You could then move on to a solution that's using a combination of algorithms and that identity information to say that, you know, you're not going to post—if you're Facebook—any political comments to news feeds or timelines from somebody who hasn't gone through that validation process, right? It's not going to get disseminated far and wide on Twitter, if you haven't gone through that validation process. And then I think you could eventually get to a point. We've seen this in with other large tech companies where you're really strongly encouraging people to stay away from content from individuals that haven't been through that validation process, right? So if it takes the equivalent of that in a warning that will pop up on a Google search when you're accessing something that's not secure, and you got to dig in three layers in order to go see that bad website. I think you could have that same kind of thing. So I think that's the kind of solution that I'm envisioning, and I think would do a lot to keep those foreign adversaries out of the dialogue, while at the same time not introducing huge barriers to involving validated individuals into the conversation.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let's go to Alexciana Castaneda next.
Q: Hi, so I'm a student at Lewis University. I'm taking a comparative government class currently. So I'm going to kind of jump back to this idea of the Facebook stuff and like authenticating people, excuse me, and kind of the struggle to keep democracy alive, for lack of better words. And my thought is so people, or American citizens, choose to opt out of those services or choose just not to be part of them. Do—are they forfeiting them their right to use things like Facebook and stuff like that? And if that is the case, how are we then keeping democracy alive per se? Or do we still allow them to do that and just kind of take the risk and hope that the majority of the population isn't going to opt out of these services, or kind of what is do you think is the best take for something like that?
KNAKE: Yeah, I think that's a very legitimate criticism. When I talk to people at Facebook about this, that's the one that they raise, particularly when looking at undocumented persons in the United States. They worry that if you had that kind of authentication built in, that Facebook would become the hunting grounds for ICE for identifying people in the United States illegally. And Facebook could say, hey, we want to stay very far away from that issue. So, that's certainly a risk.
Whether it would keep people from engaging in conversation who otherwise should, I think that's an open question. There's a couple of different approaches you can take to it. One is to say, that's okay. Most newspapers of record, do not allow anonymous letters to the editor, or op-eds. They will, in certain cases, allow for the author of an op-ed piece or a letter to remain anonymous to the readers, but not to, not to the publication. And I think that's a model that Facebook and Twitter could follow. So it might say, if you're going to be engaging in political discussion, and you want to do so under a pseudonym, you are by all rights, a fake account. I don't know fake Steve Jobs is still out there. But if you want to be fake Steve Jobs or bored Elon Musk, that should be okay. And even if you want to talk about politics as, as bored Elon Musk, you should be able to do that. At the same time, you probably should have to validate your identity to Twitter and they should know that you're not, in fact, a Russian state actor or have at least reason to believe that you're not a Russian state actor, posing as somebody who is operating an account like that as a purposeful parody. And so I think there are ways that we can get around those kinds of issues.
FASKIANOS: Thanks. Let's go to Mahesh Raisinghani next. And please accept the unmute prompt. Mahesh, you're still muted. Okay.
STAFF: Go to the next one, Irina.
FASKIANOS: Yes, I think so. Let's go to Rey Koslowski.
Q: Hi. Rey Koslowski, political science department, the University at Albany. Hi, Rob. Good to see ya.
KNAKE: Hi, Rey!
Q: Look if (inaudible) is politics by other means, is regime change of an opponent through cyber election interference a form of cyber warfare and why or why not? Classic question of a professor. And if it is, I've got a follow-up.
KNAKE: I mean, they just say yes, so we get to your follow-up.
Q: Haha, okay, in that case, are any of the efforts international cooperation with respect to cyber warfare. So OSCE confidence-building measures to reduce conflict stemming from the use of information communication technologies, or the Tallinn Manual on international law applicable to cyber warfare. Is there any space in these efforts to address this issue?
KNAKE: Yeah, I think that there that there is, and I think there have been specific efforts that, that have focused on this, the transatlantic project that I believe is sponsored by the German Marshall Fund, has focused specifically on this issue trying to get alignment between the U.S. and European allies on the subject of election interference. I think this is one of those issues where we're going to do better in forums like that than in global forums where we're trying to initially create a global norm. Right? I don't think this is something that we can negotiate with the Chinese, or the Russians or the Iranians, or North Koreans over. I think whatever promises they make in those forums, they're not going to be held to. And I doubt that they even would make promises in this regard beyond sort of generalized statements of the importance of sovereignty in cyberspace. And so this is one where I really see it important that we form a democratic coalition, particularly one that is not just focused on the United States and Western Europe. I think for a variety of reasons, we're at a moment where we really need to be engaging with the other large democratic states in the rest of the world.
This is a discussion that we want to be having with India. This is a discussion we want to be having with Indonesia, with Brazil, with South Africa. Those I think are the power brokers in this space because they're essentially being wooed by both sides of this in what in some ways seems to be a new split for the internet between the Chinese-dominated internet and the U.S., or what I like to call, the democratic-dominated internet. And so, for that reason, I would look at forums where we can bring those countries together and excluding nondemocratic countries and build this norm that we're not going to interfere in each other's elections, and then work to create pressure, collectively, that we can place on Iran, China, and Russia, not to engage in election interference. I think we've got a good model in how the world can come together to pressure countries on issues like nuclear proliferation. We need to apply that on the democratic front.
FASKIANOS: Okay, I think we can go back to Mahesh.
Q: Thank you. Thank you. And sorry about that earlier, I was pressing all day. Well, again, a fascinating conversation and my questions, I guess I'm thinking about the—for one, in the media, the indiscriminate use of the terms such as probe, intrusion, and breach. And, although there's—because of this, it blurs the important distinctions and leads to this unintended consequences, with respect to the effect this is—the language choices—are having on public confidence. But speaking about confidence, the question I have is about the hack that wasn't, that can nonetheless have the serious consequences of making confidence a far easier target than the vote itself. By that, I mean, say attackers that get the word out to the media about an alleged vote manipulation in the media. Now, that could also be made up altogether and then assurances by the government to the contrary, that might not be taken seriously by the population. What happens next is that, in fact, the government might want to keep incidents secret to prevent the turmoil. So what are your thoughts on that happening this election cycle?
KNAKE: Let me start with the first piece of this. I think the indiscriminate use of the terms is actually a fairly significant problem. We don't have a good understanding of how we should treat and where we should be drawing a line for deterrence. We seem, I think, to in some ways accept any action that stops short of a breach of data or a destructive event when it comes to foreign interference and foreign manipulation. I'll note a couple interesting points here in my view.
One is that we've had for a long time, it has been public knowledge, that the U.S. intelligence community has released that Russia, China, and Iran are at least three foreign actors that have gained access that have been intruded into our critical infrastructure and our position have the ability to cause at least temporary and at least localized disruptions to our critical infrastructure in the electric sector, the natural gas sector, and the financial sector, respectively. Our response to that has in some ways been muted. We've in some ways signaled that we're okay with that because while we have made it known that we've discovered these intrusions, and that we're aware they're going on, we haven't, I think, responded quite forcefully enough to indicate that that's not acceptable. So we put this line at you can be inside, you can map our infrastructure, you can prepare the battlefield. It's only really when you cross over that it causes harm.
On the other side of the equation, there seems to be some evidence that while Russia certainly interfered and likely had—likely that that interference was consequential in 2016, that they were positioned to do far more than they actually did. And that would suggest that they were in some ways deterred from crossing that line. They were positioned, they've carried out an intrusion. They could have actually manipulated votes or other aspects that I think would have been worse than the social media manipulation that's well known, but they, but they chose not to. And so I think it is important that we start clarifying where those lines are, and what we mean.
In terms of the incident that does not happen, essentially, the social media manipulation this time around that could undermine confidence in the vote, that's one of the biggest worries. I think what we're seeing right now is information that is false is really not getting corrected quickly enough in all the places that it finds a home on the internet. We don't have a good solution to that, particularly given first amendment concerns here. I think the solution that I find best for this isn't really being done broadly enough. But Google on certain very contentious issues, like Holocaust denial—if you search for Holocaust denial on YouTube, you're going to get a couple videos of Holocaust deniers, but it's going to be surrounded almost Talmudic-like with information about the Holocaust about Holocaust denial, essentially, that context is going to be given. I think that's a good model for handling false information. The problem with it is it's very manpower intensive for these platforms to be able to do that. And so, with the proliferation of false information, by the time it gets out, putting that back in the bottle, creating refutation of that everywhere it's spread, has been really difficult for these platforms to figure out how to do.
FASKIANOS: Thanks. Let's go next to Nancy Aziz.
Q: Hello, this is Nancy and I had a very similar question to Mrs. Nancy Gallagher. So I think that means that all Nancys think alike or all great minds think alike. So, thank you for this event and for Dr. Knake, my question is, with all the cyberattacks that have occurred, especially, or specifically, in the United States, and on the back-to-back cyberattacks and on elections and your claim or your argument that the United States intelligence community should not interfere in the elections, and because interfering in the elections will weaken American soft power. Now, how do you think banning the covert elections—how do you think that will impact the United States' role in the international system or around the globe? Especially, if the United States is a leading nation when it comes to technology and when it comes to democracy? Thank you.
KNAKE: So, I'm not too convinced that there would be really bad impacts in a sort of tactical way on this issue. If we choose to forgo this tool, it's very difficult for me to see how it would prove to be that consequential for us, given that we have so many other soft power tools, right? I think when you look at the U.S. versus Russia in this regard, Russia doesn't really have many other tools. It's a small economy, some people would argue it's essentially a declining state. It's got a shrinking population. It does not yield significant smart power or soft power globally. And so this is the tool that they have. We've got a lot of other tools, including the largest economy in the world that we can wield in order to influence global affairs. And so I think from that perspective, we would do okay to give up the capability, I think that that's not going to be an arrow in our quiver that that we really will need over the longer term.
I can certainly see how a regional specialist focusing on single country in a single election might say, oh my God, if we don't interfere in this one election right now, all hell's going to break loose. At the same time, I think if you look more holistically, more globally, at the challenge, it's pretty easy to recognize the interference in election A, usually comes out and, you know, B, given that over the longer term, you're really going to be putting the U.S. at a disadvantage if we're just contributing to further eroding faith in democracy as an institution. The last thing I will say on this point is, it's very hard for me to look back at the last decade and find an election in which I think, gee, this was so important that if we could have changed five percent of the votes we should have. And so even from that sort of realpolitik perspective, I just don't think it's a necessary tool.
FASKIANOS: I'm going to take a question from the chat. Ghaleb Akari is a PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi. He's asked, do you think we are witnessing a new cohort of elites, cybersecurity elites? How do you perceive their role in the upcoming U.S. elections, in the U.S. in general, and in the MENA region in particular? And then maybe you could also touch upon another question from Gabor Marki about how will the risk of cyber interference and national elections increase the importance or affect local and regional elections?
KNAKE: Are we seeing the growth in sort of an elite eight of cybersecurity, that's beyond the United States, China, and Russia? Absolutely. I think the general view in the field is that the costs of developing an advanced cybersecurity program are relatively low so that really any state in the world is going to be able to assemble a capability. And that tools are for purchase within the dark web. They're also for purchase from above-ground vendors who are selling them to law enforcement and police. And they get developed through partnerships with more developed countries who will partner with allies in order to help them develop their espionage capability, or their law enforcement capability, in these areas. And so I think we're definitely seeing this sort of next generation rise, right? The notable thing is that North Korea, which really isn't much of a power on the world stage has been able to carry out some very impressive cyberattacks against critical infrastructure in the United States, against the global financial system. And this is from a country that has almost no internet infrastructure of its own. So the ability to grow that capability is there. I think, beyond just this sort of new elite, the real concern I have is that it's going to be global in nature, right, that you really aren't going to be able to prevent Paraguay from interfering in local elections.
Number two, on this question of what do I think about foreign interference in local and state elections. I think that's going to be the next wave, probably no matter what the outcome, we're already seeing signs. In fact, Russia has been promoting this narrative for any number of years of separationist movements in the United States—let's create a new Cascadia. Let's think about, is it time for Texas to choose the option to secede. We've seen Russian trolls promoting both those narratives. I will say, my guess is that no matter what the outcome of the election, people who perceive to be on the losing side of that election, there are going to be local candidates running, who are going to be running on those kinds of grounds. And Russia in particular is going to jump all over supporting and amplifying those candidates. And so I think we will absolutely see in New England, some candidates, if Trump is winning, saying, hey, we've lost the Electoral College, how many times after winning the popular vote, this system isn't working, we don't want to be part of this country.
There's going to be a candidate who's going to say that who would probably get no play, no interest to be written off as a whack job, but will get heavily promoted by Russia, and then will have a legitimate voice. And that will be a legitimate debate that a foreign power will have been driving. And so I think that is very much a concern I have, and it really is specific on that issue. I think we're already seeing that argument, getting made by certain media pundits. And I think it will move from the media pundits to politicians and be amplified by Russia, and that's a very scary prospect.
FASKIANOS: All right, so I'm going to give the last question to Daniel Simonds. And I apologize that we couldn't get to all of your questions and those in the chat.
Q: Hello. I'm Dan, I'm a USC student. I'm writing a thesis actually on preemptive self-defense, the customary international law concept in regards to cyberspace. I apologize I joined late, so I don't know if this topic has been addressed yet. But I was wondering since I know someone brought up the Tallinn Manual, when do you think the U.S. would respond preemptively to a cyber threat? I know you also mentioned that Russia had established a beachhead in critical infrastructure, I've heard of this example, with kind of electrical infrastructure. I know at that point, it's still kind of looks like covert action and espionage but like you said, they also have the ability to take pretty malicious action. To me that seems like a pretty imminent threat. Do you see the U.S. responding to something like that in the future with cyber or kinetic means? And do you think preemptivity exists in cyberspace as well?
KNAKE: Yeah, I think that piece of this that you want to dig into is the whole defend forward concept, which Brandon—if he's still on—Valeriano, is somebody you should hit up. Email me and I'll get you his email address. The issue I think here that really comes to mind is with the cyber command carried out before the 2018 midterm elections, where they actively and publicly carried out offensive cyberattacks to destabilize Russian capabilities to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections. So it was absolutely preemptive, it was publicly so. It's probably one of the best examples we have of really being able to do the equivalent of a bomb damage session assessment on cyber and say, no, we did this, we're briefing out on it, here's the effect we created, here's the message we're sending to Russia about interference. And I think that's an interesting case because fundamentally, the damage they did was probably pretty limited, right? They took out internet connectivity at internet research agency's headquarters in St. Petersburg. So, I commented at the time, that probably meant that they walked across the street to Starbucks. The reality is, I think that while it may not have had a huge tactical win, it really was an important signal of how serious we were taking this, that we weren't willing to cross with somebody perceived as a red line, and we were willing to take preemptive action. And so, my hope is that there is more of that slated for this fall to degrade Russia's capability to carry out any of this activity.
Q: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Great, thank you, Rob, appreciate it. We are at the end of our hour, and I'm sorry to all those who had their hands raised, that we couldn't get to your questions. But we will have to do this—I'm having a child interruption right now. Please go. I think we're all experiencing this as parents, not all, but I am. So thank you, Rob, for joining us today for this terrific conversation, and to all of you for your great questions and answers and comments. You can follow Rob Knake @RobKnake.
Our next webinar will be on Wednesday, September 23, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Ilona Kickbusch, founding director and chair of the Global Health Center at the Graduate Institute of International Development Studies in Geneva will lead a conversation on global health during COVID-19.
So in the meantime, I encourage you all to follow CFR Academic on Twitter @CFR_Academic. Visit Cfr.org, Thinkglobalhealth.org, and Foreignaffairs.com for additional information and analysis on COVID-19 and a whole other range of regional and functional issues and I hope your semesters are off to a good start, although it's not normal, we hope that you all are staying well and safe. So, thank you. Thank you Rob, appreciate it.
KNAKE: Thanks, Irina.